Sen. Menendez held ‘weird’ secret meetings with Egyptian officials, Senate staffer testifies

By: - June 24, 2024 10:12 pm

Sen. Bob Menendez stands pictured with his wife Nadine, Egyptian Major General Khaled Ahmed Shawky Osman (beside the senator), and businessman Wael Hana, far left, during a 2021 meeting in the senator’s Washington, D.C. office. (Courtesy U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York)

In her work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sarah Arkin was tasked with briefing senators on global affairs, coordinating their diplomatic meetings and trips, and accompanying them on those encounters both at home and abroad.

So when Sen. Bob Menendez began secretly meeting and corresponding with Egyptian officials in 2018 outside those traditional channels, she and her colleagues found it “weird,” she testified Monday. Arkin’s testimony kicked off the seventh week of Menendez’s federal bribery trial in Manhattan.

Menendez was chair of the powerful committee from January 2021 until after his indictment in September.

“A critical part of my job is preparing him for those meetings,” Arkin said. “I didn’t know exactly who he was talking to or what information he had or didn’t have or who he might want to meet or where information was coming from.”

Prosecutors say that was intentional. They allege New Jersey’s senior senator, a Democrat, flouted normal protocols because he had an illicit deal with his friend and co-defendant Wael Hana, who gave him cash and gold bars in exchange for the senator currying favor with Egyptian officials so that they would grant Hana a lucrative monopoly on exporting halal meat there.

Arkin told jurors she became Menendez’s foreign policy adviser in 2016 and in 2018 joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where she’s now a senior professional staffer.

Under questioning by prosecutor Daniel Richenthal, Arkin testified that Menendez had always been an outspoken critic of Egypt because of its dismal human rights record. But in the spring of 2019, he told Arkin he wanted to be more quiet and private in expressing his humanitarian concerns about Egypt and instructed her to soften a letter she’d drafted calling out the country’s mistreatment and detention of critics and other affronts to democracy, Arkin testified.

He also organized several meetings without his staff’s knowledge with Egyptian officials they didn’t know and did not brief staff afterward, as he typically did, Arkin said. Even Egyptian nationals who worked at Egypt’s embassy in Washington, D.C., weren’t familiar with an official Menendez directed Arkin to call, she added.

“Soooo my guy at the embassy isn’t aware of anyone with that name but is going to try to run it down,” Arkin texted her colleague Damian Murphy, who’s now the committee’s staff director.

“That’s weird. How big is the embassy?” Murphy responded.

Arkin answered: “It’s pretty big but not THAT big.”

The more questions Arkin asked, though, the more irked Menendez got, according to testimony.

When he decided to travel to Egypt, he told Arkin she’d angered the Egyptians and barred her from going, even though she typically went on such trips and had been urging him specifically to visit Egypt, which historically has received more U.S. military aid than any other country besides Israel, she said. Instead, he took his then-girlfriend and now-wife Nadine, who “had a lot of opinions” on the trip and was “very involved” in its planning, Arkin said.

Richenthal showed jurors a text exchange in which Arkin and Murphy puzzled over it all.

“All of this Egypt stuff is very weird. I’ve never seen anything like it,” Murphy texted Arkin.

Richenthal also showed jurors messages indicating an unusually friendly relationship between the Menendezes and the Egyptian officials.

In one, Egyptian Major General Khaled Ahmed Shawky Osman called the senator “Bob” — a familiarity uncommon among those who interacted with the senator, Arkin said.

During the time of his “weird” approach to the Egyptian officials, Arkin testified, the committee released billions in military aid and arms to Egypt and Menendez was involved in several Middle Eastern initiatives, including a dam in Ethiopia that would impact the Nile River and Egypt and a natural gas deal off the Egyptian coast.

Under cross-examination by defense attorney Avi Weitzman, Arkin testified that Menendez said he wanted to tone down his public criticism of Egypt because New Jersey is home to a large population of Coptic Christian Egyptians who support Egypt President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

Looking ahead

Earlier Monday, defense attorneys cross-examined FBI Special Agent Paul Van Wie, who presented a chain of emails, texts, and other correspondence and documents prosecutors introduced to bolster their case.

Under Weitzman’s questioning, Van Wie read texts prosecutors did not show jurors, which suggested a Bulgari purse and extravagant flower bouquet co-defendant Fred Daibes gave Nadine Menendez weren’t bribes, but rather birthday presents.

Weitzman also tried to poke holes in Van Wie’s testimony last week, when he narrated texts, Zillow listings, and other documents that showed the Menendezes were house-hunting and had looked at homes priced over $5 million. This was just a month before FBI agents visited their Englewood Cliffs home in June 2022 with a search warrant and seized more than $486,000 in cash, 13 gold bars, and other items they said were bribes.

“Are you aware that Zillow is often used as escapist fantasy by people?” Weitzman asked, prompting laughter from the jury.

Weitzman also pushed back on prosecutors’ claims that Menendez repeatedly Googled the price of gold, showing other online searches suggesting that the senator’s wife Googled things on his account. Menendez’s online history showed searches for everything from “the best blow dry bars in Washington, D.C.” to “how do you say girlfriend in Spanish.” The senator is fluent in Spanish.

Prosecutor Paul Monteleoni deflated that defense, though, by showing, on re-direct, texts between the senator and his wife after she had asked him to track down hair salon details for a friend.

Arkin is expected to remain on the stand Tuesday for further cross-examination.

Prosecutors have said they will question several more witnesses, including Shannon Kopplin, chief counsel and staff director for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Ethics, and expect to rest their case this week. Defense attorneys for Menendez and his co-defendants Hana and Fred Daibes expect to take up to two weeks to present their defense, with the case going to the jury for deliberations possibly the week of July 8.

The case is running behind schedule. Monday was marked with several tongue-lashings from Judge Sidney H. Stein, who scolded defense attorneys for “sand-bagging the government” with frequent last-minute motions.

Menendez, 70, who has held his Senate seat since 2006, is charged with acting as a foreign agent, fraud, extortion, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and related offenses. It’s his second corruption trial in seven years; the first ended in a hung jury in 2017.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children. You can reach her at [email protected].

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